My own GDR museum

Let me start with some good advice: if you want to read more about Strausberger Platz/Karl-Marx-Allee in its currents state, check out this interactive Karl-Marx-Allee special of Die Zeit (only in German). It shows the many faces of the street and the way history and the present intertwine in this former heart of East-Berlin.

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Cleaning the pots and pans, then and now

The writers interviewed the daughter of the street’s architect Hermann Henselmann as well as a group of students now living on Karl-Marx-Allee. Some of them were aware of the story behind their street, but exchange student Jan has to admit: ‘In Belgium I’ve learned something in history class, about the East being communist and the West being capitalist. Many wanted to go from the East into the West, but what that meant – no idea.’

My very famous street

It got me thinking: is it possible to live in a street with this much history without actually knowing the history? Not for me, surely. Before I moved to Berlin, I lived in one of the oldest streets of my native city Haarlem, a lovely place not far for Amsterdam. I couldn’t wait to go to the city archive and find out about the story of my house. To learn more about Karl-Marx-Allee I don’t even have to go into the archives, because books have been written about it and it even has its own room in the Märkisches Museum, the museum of the city of Berlin. Café Sybille, part of the Karl-Marx-Allee since 1953, has a permanent exhibition about the street.

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Café Sybille, for good beer and a nice GDR exhibition

In Haarlem I didn’t do much with the history of my house, I just liked knowing it. Let me paint you a picture of what my house looked like: there was a big school map with the mineral resources and industrial sites of the GDR above the couch, an original map of East Berlin above the dining table, a picture frame with GDR money on the dresser, a plastic GDR egg cup in the kitchen, original books from the GDR on the book shelves and a miniature Trabant in the window – although I would rather have an actual Trabant to drive in (still a dream). It was a small GDR museum facing a Dutch canal. The museum has moved to Berlin and is expanding: it started with an old copper and glass lamp that I want to hang in the hallway, next on my list are two original chairs for the living room.

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My cat has her dinners underneath the mineral resources of the GDR

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We have our dinners underneath the former East-Berlin

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My GDR egg cup and my newest purchase: a GDR lamp

Back to its original state

Sadly enough, my apartment will never be a real Museumswohnung, like the one in the Berlin neighbourhood Hellersdorf. It has been renovated too well and has a beautiful new wooden floor, spotless white walls and a brand new kitchen and bathroom. Only the doors are still originals, including their glass windows. It’s perfect, but it’s not GDR anymore. Truth be told: I like it better this way. I’m fascinated by the non-renovated buildings at the far end of Karl-Marx-Allee, where Frankfurter Allee starts. They show the traces of history, they show what times does to even the most impressive building. But to be honest, I much prefer living in my perfect home, full of light, with double-glazing and a shiny bathtub. Even the staircase is being renovated right now – with a great deal of care, the construction workers are restoring it to its original state.

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The Museumswohnung in Hellersdorf, image courtesy of Stadt und Land

Playing GDR

But I’m still a historian and historians look for traces of the past. So at this point I’m reading everything there is to read about my new street and I’m looking for old pictures in the city archives of Berlin. I try to imagine what my house must have looked like 60 years ago, when it had just been built. The good thing about living in a famous street like Karl-Marx-Allee is that there are plenty of pictures and there is more than enough information about what the street once looked like. Especially in a street like Karl-Marx-Allee, history couldn’t be more alive – as long as you know where to look. There are many parallels between what once was and what still is.

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Hanging-out in the living room, then and now

To paint a picture for both you and myself, I combined some images. I hope you forgive me for trying to look like a fifties housewife, we were really enjoying ourselves. As you can see, with a little bit of imagination, not that much has changed. Please allow me to finish with more piece of good advice: if you want to learn more about the history of Karl-Marx-Allee and the GDR, do visit the lovely Café Sybille (Karl-Marx-Allee 72), the Museumswohnung WBS70 (Hellersdorferstrasse 179) and the Märkisches Museum (Am Köllnischen Park 5) with its great volunteers who are more than willing to tell you everything about Berlin’s history. In the meantime I will keep working on my own GDR museum.

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Cooking dinner, then and now